By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009
UNITED NATIONS -- The Obama administration has declined requests from U.N. human rights investigators for information on secret prisons and for private interviews with inmates at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.N. officials said, dampening their hopes of greater U.S. cooperation on human rights issues.
The rebuffs are the latest instances of the U.S. government resisting international human rights organizations' efforts to learn about Bush administration practices. In June, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton turned down a request from the top U.N. anti-torture official for a meeting in Washington to discuss practices at secret CIA detention centers and at Guantanamo Bay, despite the administration's avowed commitment to being open to greater scrutiny by the United Nations.
Two U.N. human rights researchers, Martin Scheinin and Manfred Nowak, separately requested visits to the Guantanamo Bay facility in recent months and were turned down. "They said, 'We are trying to close down the institution. For the time being, we don't see it as a priority,' " Scheinin said U.S. officials told him. "It was not a 'no, no.' It was a diplomatic 'no.' Let's say dialogue will continue."
Scheinin, Nowak and two other U.N. experts also requested details on the secret CIA prisons' history, locations and detainees. "The answer we received from the United States is meaningless. There is no meaningful information," Nowak said. "They're just repeating that the Obama administration stopped using secret places of detention."
U.S. officials said that they support the work of the U.N. human rights researchers but that they are constrained in releasing information on sensitive intelligence matters. They insist that they have not formally closed the door on visits to Guantanamo Bay.
U.S. efforts to engage the United Nations have been slowed because several key diplomatic positions in the Obama administration are still open or have just been filled.
"The Obama administration has taken aggressive action on this issue from day one, upholding our nation's fundamental values while making the American people safer," Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said in a statement. "The President banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, initiated a review of all pending cases at Guantanamo, and ordered that facility closed within one year."
Many U.N. human rights advocates acknowledge that President Obama has ended the worst practices of the Bush administration, including harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, that the United Nations considers torture. But they say the old practices damaged the international human rights system, making it easier for brutal regimes to justify abuses.
Obama "has set an example of what a leader can do, in terms of policy and practice, to uphold the total prohibition on torture," Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said last month. But "there is still much to do before the Guantanamo chapter is truly brought to a close."
The U.N. team probing secret prisons plans to publish a major report this year. The project will review the broader history of clandestine detention centers, starting with their use in Latin America from the 1970s onward, then delving into the Bush administration's secret detentions and scrutinizing other countries suspected of still using such prisons.
The investigators will pursue the fate of scores of suspects who were not sent to Guantanamo Bay, including Mustafa Setmariam Naser, a dual Syrian-Spanish citizen who is thought to have been transferred to Syria, said Joanne Mariner, director of the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch's terrorism and counterterrorism program. "They are interested in bringing to light some new cases," she said.
Still, U.N. rights investigators have differed over how to respond to the Obama administration's refusal to abandon a number of Bush-era policies, including open-ended detention of terrorism suspects and the use of military commissions. Some investigators insist that they have an obligation to prod the administration until it confronts the United States' human rights record. Others say it is time to move on and direct attention at governments that continue abuses.
"It is not enough to say we've stopped these practices and we'll look to the future," Nowak said. The Obama administration has a legal obligation, he said, under the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified, to investigate torture allegations. The Austrian lawyer said there is a need for urgent investigation because the statute of limitation for prosecution of alleged torturers expires as early as next year.
Nowak said he wants to conduct private interviews with 14 "high value" detainees who were transferred from secret CIA prisons in 2006. But he also expressed concern about prevailing conditions at Guantanamo Bay, where a Yemeni detainee, Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih, apparently committed suicide last month. "I do think there is a genuine willingness by the Obama administration to tackle these issues. I just feel it is already taking a fairly long time to really change," Nowak said.
In March, Philip Alston, the U.N. official researching extrajudicial executions, criticized the Obama administration's refusal to rule out the use of military commissions or to investigate past practices.
But Alston, an Australian lawyer who teaches at New York University, said he has little power to compel the administration to change course. He said the United States' measured response to his report had diluted its impact; U.S. officials said they appreciated it but disagreed with portions. "By playing the good guy, not making a fuss, not even taking on any of the issues, the U.S. shrewdly helped to play the whole thing down," he said. He has since moved on to work on other nations.
Meanwhile, Scheinin said the United States and Britain have enough strong domestic voices pushing for accountability. For instance, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is considering appointing a prosecutor to investigate torture allegations. Scheinin said he will turn his attention to scrutinizing other countries, including Russia and China, that continue to cite U.S. practices to justify abuses against domestic opponents.
He said his plan to travel to Guantanamo Bay was driven by a belief that it would strengthen his case for securing access in other countries. "I would like to move on," Scheinin said. "My priority is to stop copycatting by authoritarian governments who thought what the Bush administration was doing gave them a free hand to do whatever they like."